Monday, May 10

The setting of a food revolution

After getting recommendations from three friends independently I felt obliged to check out Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution (It's still on hulu until June 5th). Definitely well worth the 4+ hours. You've got the drama of clashing personalities and the group hug scenes perfected by a decade of reality TV, but this show simply has the traction to carry real change beyond the scope of the show itself. I've decided it's not actually reality TV at all, but a documentary of a grassroots movement in progress.

Could this be a revolution that is televised after all? (that is, if you can look passed the irony of sponsorship from Healthy Choices pre-packaged dinners). The prize selection committee at TED seemed to think so, and Jamie Oliver's acceptance speech is a good introduction to what he's up to.

Pullman Square in Huntington, West Virginia. Flickr Credit: Sarah.WV
What I'm interested in is the deeply place-based strategy he has taken. He recognizes that eating well is not only an individual choice, but it's also profoundly influenced by the structure of the community you find yourself in. Do the markets stock healthy food at reasonable prices? Can you get to them? Do schools serve genuine food? Is there an overall culture of self-reliant food preparation? Seeing the problem this way naturally lends itself to picking one place, Huntington, West Virginia, getting every local institution on board, building enthusiasm and the synergy of community action, and finally creating a model city.

This movement needed a physical space to launch from. It needed Jamie's Kitchen (now Huntington's Kitchen) to be, not only a useful space for gathering, but an architectural expression of the whole idea. It is noteworthy that he chose the very center of the city, right off the beautiful Pullman Square on 3rd Avenue, for the location.

When I drove across the country the summer before last, I made a point to ask everyone I met this question: "where is the very center of your town?"

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In some towns, people would be puzzled by the whole concept. There was nothing to latch on to. Maybe the Walmart, but probably not. In other towns, the response would be immediate, and it was always some place they were proud of. It was a public living room for the whole community. I stopped briefly in Huntington but unfortunately never had a chance to talk to anyone.  I have a feeling they may have said Pullman Square if I had.

Jamie also knows that public space is the lifeblood of any grassroots movement. He closed down the street out in front of the kitchen and set up forty tables for one big cooking lesson. He organized a flash mob in the central gathering area of Marshall University to drum up interest from students. Once again, the center counts. The airwaves and cables could get his message into every private living room and every driver's seat, but the true source of energy happened when crowds united in one place. The fact that this occurred outside on public streets meant the whole city was the arena.

Right, I know the show is really about food. But it's also about place. These are the questions that I'm naturally asking while I watched. How can we physically structure our communities so that someone like Jamie can come in and have a fighting chance at starting a revolution?


CarFree Stupidity said...

First we need a public space that can be shared as you point out. Closing down a street for a cooking class is an interesting concept and an innovative use of public space.

There is still a big barrier though to this kind of use. The view that streets are for cars to get from point A to B as quickly as possible is still very much dominate in many people's minds. In helping to orginize Missoula's first Cyclovia type event I can't tell you how many people couldn't grasp the idea of opening up the streets as a public shared space for people to use as they please... their immaginations couldn't get them from point A to B and I heard a lot of "Roads are for cars" type response.

Daniel Nairn said...

As I'm thinking about your issue, the image of a parade comes to mind. Lot's of communities have shut down streets for generations to hold a parade once or twice a year. I wonder if that can be a good entry point for a Cyclovia; something that can tie it into a tradition that people are more familiar with.

Eric Orozco said...

Interesting thought there that local foods movements naturally highlight the importance of place. How is Charlottesville doing in this respect, Daniel? You have some interesting back to the land and organic farming movements brewing up there (your faculty has certainly been quite active trumpeting these trajectories). Do these endeavors have urban spaces they can associate themselves with? The urban "front", if you think about it, is quite necessary and could empower them.